British pop sensation Sir Cliff Richard once said, “I’ve got two places I like to be. Portugal is one.” Countless people have shared the legendary entertainer’s sentiments about Europe’s southwestern most country over the centuries for its geography and breathtaking natural landscapes that have remained virtually intact for nearly 900 years.
Portugal’s national capital, Lisbon, boasts one of the longest histories, warmest climates and wildest nightlife of any major European city alongside its dramatic location sprawled along seven seaside hills. Lisbon’s most famous landmarks are the Castle of St George atop the Tower of Belém soaring 100 feet above the Tagus River, and the Jeronimos Monastery containing the city’s Maritime Museum depicting Portugal’s golden age of discovery. Another Lisbon museum worth visiting is the National Tile Museum dedicated to Portugal’s unique azulejo art.
Portugal is also among the few European countries where visitors can see northern green mountains, the Alentejo region’s desert-like landscape and the Algarve’s breathtaking beach resorts in a single day. Peneda-Gerês, Portugal’s only national park, contains countless towering mountains surrounded by charming rural villages filled with centuries-old buildings. Even more ancient history lies within the Côa Valley Archeological Park’s elaborate prehistoric rock art sites. Portugal is also home to 14 of the 100 best golf courses in Europe and the continent’s southwestern most point, Cabo de São Vicente, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea.
Summer may be Portugal’s busiest travel season, but many believe the shoulder seasons of spring and fall are an even better time to visit as temperatures are warm without being uncomfortable and crowds significantly diminish. This is especially true in the Algarve, a popular beach resort destination and winter escape for northern European tourists.
The Alentejo and Alto Douro are the only parts of Portugal which are too hot to comfortably visit in summer. Average daytime temperatures in Lisbon remain over 71°F well into October and rarely drop below 48°F during the coldest winter months of December and January. Portugal’s wettest season is winter, which begins in November and lasts until March, but rain is far more common than snow. Unpleasant wind and precipitation rarely last long in Portugal, and the sun shines no fewer than 300 days a year.
Currency: the Euro
Official language: Portuguese, Mirandese
Portugal’s oldest documented human settlers lived during the middle of the Ice Age about 30,000 BC. Around 700 BC, the Celts became the first of many groups to invade and conquer the land. During the centuries to come, Portugal would be occupied by the Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors, in that order. One of the most lasting souvenirs from the Moorish era is the famous Castelo de São Jorge (Edificio das Antigas Prisões, 1100-129 Lisbon) towering over the highest of Lisbon’s seven hills.
A relatively peaceful period lasted from 711 AD to the 11th century. King Ferdinand I of León and Castile drove the Moors out of most of present-day Portugal. They were officially declared an independent nation in 1143 in the northern city of Guimarães, with King Alfonso Henriques elected the first monarch.
Lisbon became Portugal’s national capital in 1255 and home to the country’s first university in 1290. After João of Aviz expelled the Castilians from Spain in 1385, he became King João I. During the next two centuries, Portugal not only grew into one of the world’s most powerful maritime nations, but established colonies such as Brazil in South America, Malacca in Indonesia, Goa in India, and Macau in China. This golden age is best seen at Lisbon’s Maritime Museum (Praça do Império, 1400-206 Lisbon).
Portugal’s period of conquest and discovery ended after King Philip II of Spain declared himself king of Portugal during the late 16th century. Although a 1640 coup established the Duke of Braganza as King Joao IV, Spain did not formally recognize their reclaimed independence until the 1668 Treaty of Lisbon.
Like citizens of many other Mediterranean Sea nations, the Portuguese take great pride in their food, family and fashion. Men in berets and women in black shawls still believe in evil eyes and other ancient superstitions in rural villages. Many Portuguese are very conservative and very polite during the day, but let loose after the sun sets in Europe’s liveliest nightclubs. The Portuguese drinking age was only recently raised to 18.
Fado is the best known musical genre, which is melancholy guitar. Centuries of talented Portuguese artists are displayed not only in the galleries, but also in the elaborately illustrated azulejos decorating many walls and buildings, as well as the calçada tiles on Portugal’s cobblestone streets. There is even a National Tile Museum in Lisbon to see this unique art form.
As one of Europe’s warmest countries, Portugal enjoys annual year-round temperatures of at least 64°F in the south and a slightly cooler 55°F in the north. Portugal’s notoriously hot summers soar as high as 95°F in the southern interior, the warmest region in the country, but even the north can get up to 86°F. Sunshine frequently interrupts their rainy and windy fall and winter.
Winter weather in coastal Portugal rarely fall below 41°F and averages closer to 50°F, but snow is a much more common sight inland, especially in the Serra da Estrela mountains where snow can fall as early as October and as late as May, but melt very quickly once the warmer spring arrives. The climate along Portugal’s southern Algarve coast is often compared to southern Spain or California.
Portugal is part of the Schengen Agreement, which means there are no border controls for nationals of EU countries. EU citizens only require a valid national identity card or passport to enter Portugal. Non-EU citizen require a valid passport and possibly a visa if you intend on a longer visit.
In Portugal, taxis are metered, but passengers usually round up their fares to the nearest dollar instead of tipping. A supplement may be charged for luggage, which will need to be attached to the roof if it doesn't fit in the trunk. One of Lisbon’s biggest cab companies is Teletáxis (+351 218 111 100), while Taxis Invicta (+351 225 076 400) is among Porto’s leading providers.
Naviera Armas Ferries, based in Spain, runs the main boat service between Funchal on the island of Madeira and the Algarve port of Portimão. Lisbon’s main ferry companies are Transtejo, which makes three regular stops along the Tagus River, and CP (Portuguese Railways), which operates between Barreiro and Praça do Comércio.
Portugal has an excellent inter-city rail network which includes frequent express trains between Lisbon and the popular retreats of Sintra and Cascais. Alfa Pendular offers fast rail service from Lisbon to Porto in the north and to the Algarve beaches in the south. The Intercidades train also links Lisbon to Porto, the Alentejo and the Algarve. The InterRail One-Country Pass is the cheapest way to travel, especially for those under 26.
Lisbon and Porto both boast efficient underground systems in addition to their own inner-city tram and bus networks. The Metropolitano de Lisboa contains four separate lines designated by color, and a unique network of street lifts called elevators. Lisboa Card passengers are entitled to unlimited rides on any form of public transportation through the capital.
The five-line Metro do Porto is Porto’s underground network, and STCP operates a single tram route and more extensive bus network. Porto’s Andante shops all sell transportation cards valid on the city’s metro lines, suburban trains and STCP buses. Portugal’s main inter-city bus companies are InterCentro and its two smaller affiliates, InterSul and InterNorte.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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